Bob Vila’s name has been synonymous with home improvement since he helped launch This Old House in 1979. After nearly thirty years of producing and hosting television shows about the world of home design and improvement, he now showcases many of his ideas on his popular website, BobVila.com – a destination also packed with how-to articles and archived episodes. A pioneer of the adaptive reuse movement, Vila helped bring “green” thought to the forefront, and in more recent years he has focused much of his efforts on investigating sustainable building and design. Read on for our conversation with one of the most recognized voices in remodeling as he discusses green building, retrofitting, materials and energy, and how we need to recognize science and the role of government when we talk about policy.
Inhabitat: Your website has a lot of green projects and content. Can you tell us more about what you covered over the years that is about sustainable design?
Bob Vila: I’m always saying now that I’m 35 years into this that we’ve started calling it “green” and referring to everything as “green this” and “green that” in the last few years, but the basics are still the basics that we’ve always been talking about — at least I’ve been talking about — for many, many years going back to the very beginning of This Old House. Conservation, preservation, recycling, all these things that we were looking at 30-35 years ago in the realm of historic preservation are green. Because obviously rather than tearing down and throwing away, we’re recycling, refurbishing, reusing and saving all those manpower hours, all that energy, and all those materials that initially went into the construction of whatever — whether it was a log cabin or a federal mansion in Virginia.
Over the years the things that I’ve been most involved in trying to promote have had to do with energy conservation, and I guess what has opened everybody’s eyes to this was the first Arab oil embargo, and the spikes in energy costs that we saw back in the ’70s. My son was born in the ’70s and a lot of people don’t remember that we were dealing with heating oil that went from 30 or 40 cents to $1.00 and $1.25 very quickly. So issues of energy conservation and smart energy use have been at the forefront of what I’ve been promoting for a long time — coupled with other simple technologies like insulation. And in terms of new home building, that’s kind of an area where I think a lot of people are excited about just due to the possibilities. But there is still much to be said about old technologies, if you will, the stuff as simple as how to site a house so that it takes advantage of passive solar gain.
Inhabitat: Existing houses have had a bit of a renaissance, as we have seen people move back into the cities, reclaiming older buildings again. Have you seen a boom or a change in interest for remodeling and reclaiming buildings in the past couple years?
Bob Vila: I spend part of the year in New York, and when I’m there I’m always aware of the interest in what the real estate brokers call loft conversions or lofts. But this is still one of the most popular forms of urban housing, not just in New York, but in so many cities. When I was in Chicago a few months ago, and in Houston a couple of weeks ago, you are always seeing former warehouses, former light industrial manufacturing buildings, things that were put up in the 1920s and ’30s prewar that are getting recycled and given new lives as urban loft living. It’s very popular with a younger generation. It’s very popular with people who realize that these buildings very often wind up in parts of a city which are now very desirable because they’re central. I think across the board you are seeing a lot of this. Adaptive reuse is the term that I first used many years ago in doing a project that involved an obsolete building and making it useful.
Inhabitat: Can you tell us about that project?
Bob Vila: It was the second year of This Old House. We renovated an obsolete and abandoned summer cottage on top of a hill outside of Boston that had been designed by a famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson – one of the great names in American architecture in the 19th century. We made it into an adaptive reuse and restoration project, which ended up providing five dwelling units in the form of a condominium ownership. This is in 1980, so 30 years ago.